Anaheim's Citizens Advisory Committee, assigned to recommend in less than three months potentially sweeping changes to the way City Council members are elected, is facing the abrupt resignations of three of its 10 voting members and withering criticism from its own chairwoman, raising questions about whether the committee can make a competent recommendation by its May 31 deadline.
Chairwoman Vivian Pham said city staff has refused to provide information relevant to forming council districts by ignoring her requests for specific speakers to present information. Latino activists and an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit have demanded council districts to better represent Latinos.
“I feel that the presentations we have had are more fluff. I feel like they're distracting us from the real issue of districting,” Pham said. “We can't make an informative decision because they won't give us the information.”
Further complicating the committee's work, one of the new appointees, Keith Olesen, denounced “90 percent” of the committee and its chairwoman as “incompetent” on a neighborhood message board, according to a resident who spoke at the last committee meeting.
Olesen, who wrote the comments before he was appointed, also wrote that committee members have known from the start how they would vote at the end of the committee's seven-month study, echoing suspicions from Latino activists that the committee is rigged to ultimately reject council districts.
Olesen said he also doubts whether the committee can complete its work.
Finding an answer to the city's election problems is “certainly not practical, given the makeup of the committee and the subject at hand,” Olesen said. “There is some question in people's minds as to what it is we're exactly doing.”
The committee, which according to city spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz has so far cost city taxpayers $18,395, was created after the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging that the city's at-large voting system violates the 2001 California Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Latinos, who constitute more than half of the city's residents. None of the council members is Latino.
Activists argue that council districts, which would allow voters to vote only for candidates in their districts, would provide adequate Latino representation by ensuring that heavily Latino areas get their own council representatives.
The committee, which first met in October, was thought to be assigned to recommend potential electoral system changes so that residents could vote on them in the June 2014 primary election. A new electoral system could then be in place by the next council election in November 2014.
And although that is one option, Ruiz said, the committee can make recommendations that don't include an election system change, like methods to improve voter participation.
“This is a very proactive step the city has taken to bring in citizen engagement to study the electoral system,” Ruiz said.
Yet since its inception, the committee's critics have denounced it as an underhanded method by the council majority to delay the implementation of council districts.
Latino activists and former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway, who along with Mayor Tom Tait voted for council districts, argued that because each council member made two appointmens, the committee would be stacked 6 to 4 with a majority of members against the move.
“I don’t think it has any validity,” Amin David, president emeritus of Los Amigos of Orange County, the grassroots Latino group, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, had said when the committee was formed. “It’s structured by the City Council majority.”
Tait had pushed to place the council districts issue on last November's general election ballot, but a three-member council majority rejected the move.
Members of the council majority — Kris Murray, Gail Eastman and then Councilman Harry Sidhu — hadn't said they were against council districts but had argued that activists were unclear about what they wanted in a such a system, such as the number of districts. Council elections needed in-depth study before a major election system change, they argued.
Murray appointed Olesen and Sandy Day, both vocal opponents of council districts, to replace two committee members who abruptly resigned six meetings and four months into the process because of scheduling conflicts, according to a city news release.
One other seat, which was vacated by Sidhu appointee Peter Argarwal, remains open. Council members are scheduled Tuesday to consider forming a subcommittee to select Argawal's replacement.
Thursday's was the first meeting of Murray's appointees.
“Their [Day's and Olesen's] appointments are a slap in the face to the Hispanic residents of the city and the minorities of this city,” resident Steve Perez said at the meeting. “They are obviously closed-minded to the goals of this committee.”
Olesen wrote in his message board comments that the committee appointees were selected for specific agendas.
Perez read Olesen's writings into the record during last Thursday's committee meeting.
“Everyone who is appointed to this committee is appointed for a specific reason,” Perez said, referring to Olesen's message board post, which was texted to Perez moments before he spoke by Save Anaheim blogger Jason Young. “They already know which way they are voting.”
“I believe that is how this started, yeah,” Olesen replied.
For Eric Altman, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, which has supported council districts, Olesen's comments affirm that the results of the committee's work are predetermined.
“From the beginning, council member Murray has claimed to have an open mind and to be looking for what is best for the people of Anaheim for this committee,” Altman said. “If her appointees have come into this process with preformed opinions, even though she claims not to have a preformed opinion, then I think that pretty much predicts the outcome.”
Altman and Olesen both said in interviews that if they were gambling types, they would bet on the results.
“Most people are going to get appointed to the committee mostly because they reflect the views of the person that appointed them. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, it just makes sense,” Olesen said. “But who knows, somebody may come up with that one little gem that no one else though of … one of those eureka moments.”
As for his remarks about Pham and 90 percent of the committee members, Olesen said Pham shouldn't be offended. He also said her handling of meetings as chairwoman has improved lately.
“If I was her, I wouldn't care,” Olesen said. “For the same reason I wouldn't care if people said something weird about me.”
Pham said that she would judge Olesen by his actions on the committee. “Unless they personally attack me, I'm not going to react to the statement,” she said.
According to Olesen, Murray monitors and sometimes responds to postings on the message board on which Olesen disparaged committee members and expressed his opinions about council districts.
Murray did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Tait wouldn't address the committee's problems directly but pointed out that he voted against forming the committee.
“It's the most fundamental question of how the people should be governed, and the best way to answer that question is through the ballot. And having districting or not is a relatively simple question,” Tait said.
So far, committee members who have expressed opinions about council districts have followed the split council's fault line.
Gloria Ma'ae, an Eastman appointee, has said that Latinos have had plenty of representation because two past council members have been Latino. “Personally, I want too be represented as an individual, as a human being, as a resident, not just as a Latina,” she said at a December committee meeting.
Ma'ae also sent an email to council members last July expressing opposition to council districts.
Pham, appointed by Tait, said she has been strategizing with Altman and others in favor of council districts.
Martin Lopez, a Galloway appointee, was one of the activists pushing for council districts before the committee was formed.
From the first meeting, Larry Larsen and Bill Dalati —the former a Galloway appointee, the latter appointed by Tait — tried to raise council districts as the most pertinent issue the committee is facing.
Meanwhile, committee members Anthony Armas, an Eastman appointee, and Vic Real, appointed by Sidhu, have been less forthcoming with their opinions or have yet to form any.
Real said he hasn't formed an opinion on council districts but acknowledges that other committee members were appointed with an agenda.
“I feel like I'm a college student reading a textbook, but I cannot take a test until I finish the textbook,” Real said.
Altman said that despite its flaws and potentially fixed outcome, the committee remains the public's only process by which to express opinions on the city's elections system. So far, most public speakers have favored council districts, he said.
Nonetheless, Altman and Pham also argue that the committee appears to be a smoke screen, designed to stall progress on the lawsuit and the issue in general.
The committee has had presentations on the state's Voting Rights Act and information on geographic voting patterns in the 2010 election. But it has yet to receive more detailed information, such as an analysis of racially polarized voting patterns in the city.
This information would be critical to determining whether the ACLU lawsuit has merit, because it would show whether Latinos have consistently voted for the same candidates but have been unable to elect them.
In at least one instance, however, city staffers denied a request for that information, arguing that that solving the problems raised in the lawsuit doesn't fall under the purview of the committee's responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the city has filed court actions to postpone the lawsuit's proceedings, arguing that the committee's work could provide a remedy that would make the lawsuit moot.
It's this kind of circular logic that fuels conclusions dubious about the committee's true purpose, according to Pham and Altman.
“I do feel it's kind of a delaying tactic for the [council] majority to delay the lawsuit,” Pham said.